Do you guys have anything for herbal-based medicine (that's not from a wiccan perspective)? I'm writing a medieval fantasy story where there's no magic, and all medicines are based on plants/herbs/flowers. (think Cadfael, if you're familiar with Ellis Peters.) The medicine is pretty advanced for it being medieval (i.e. stitches, cleaning wounds, actual analgesics instead of strong liquor, etc) Love your blog! Just stumbled across it and it's already helped me so much! Thanks!
Plantago major – a poultice of the leaves was once widely used for bug bites and skin conditions. Now, it serves mostly to fuck up my lawn.
Disclaimer #1: Take absolutely none of this as medical advice. If you are ill, seek professional medical assistance. Herbs may be all natural, but they are not all safe. People die all the time from misusing dangerous herbs. Also, some herbs are safe for some people, but you might develop an allergy. This post will just discuss accepted principles of herbal medicine and how they can be adapted to a story.
Disclaimer #2: Different cultures have different approaches to herbal medicine. I can only really speak to the Western European/North American approaches. There are many systems out there, some which do combine both medical and spiritual uses. Be respectful and don’t appropriate.
What you will probably be doing most is looking for herbs/treatments to deal with specific plot points. What you need to research then, are the medical functions of the herbs, not just their names.
For example: Your main character has a fever? You need to reduce the fever, usually done with febrifuge herbs. They’re in pain? Analgesic/anodynes, unless your world has also discovered opiates. Muscle cramps? Anti-spasmodics. You want to know when to apply a poultice and when to use an emetic … or an anti-emetic.You’ll need to know which part of the plant is used, and whether to infuse, extract or decoct.
Fortunately, the best (medical) herbals are either indexed or cross-referenced this way. The hands-down best is David Hoffman’s Holistic Herbal. If you can get a used copy, any edition, SINCE YOU ARE NOT USING THIS TO TREAT MEDICAL CONDITIONS, RIGHT? it will teach you probably all you need to know. He has other books on medical herbalism, too.
Hoffman goes into a lot of pretty easy chemistry and preparation techniques, too. It’s focused mostly on the herbs readily available in the UK, continental Europe and North America.
A Modern Herbal, sometimes known as Mrs. Grieve’s Herbal, is available online. It was first published in 1931. So take that under consideration. The page linked here also has references for poisonous herbs and antidotes, one from the 1940s and a more modern reference courtesy of Cornell University.
If you want even more anachronistic resources, there’s Culpeper’s Herbal, found online here. It was written in the 17th century (but there are numerous updates) and there are some things recommended in it that are downright dangerous. But, making mistakes might be a good plot point. [note: if you follow the link above, entries have links to “More info” about that herb that’s a lot more modern. But there’s still some crackpot shit on there, so remember, this is just story research.]
Once you have a handle on a few herbs you might want to write into your story, do additional research online, although be careful. Wikipedia does do an admirable job discussing folkloric uses of herbs and whether they are now considered safe or unsafe or just useless. But don’t overlook the placebo effect, either.
A lot of herbs that have been used for centuries gather multiple common names and it can be fun to use those instead of the scientific or more modern names. Have a cup of ground apple tea to relax!
And if you want to add in aromatherapy/essential oil therapy that is evidence based and medical, not ephemeral, I would encourage you to spend time on this website here. It’s a business, but the owner is incredibly knowledgeable about using essential oils for a variety of conditions – including mental and ephemeral ones. It has a lot about safety, theory and good usage practices that are pretty low tech and perfectly suited for a high-medieval setting. Plus, a lot of this stuff smells fantastic!
Compared to a lot of MLM and other types of businesses, it is zero percent scammy. I’ve been buying from them for at least 10 years. Also, some essential oils have been clinically proven to have a therapeutic effect on living beings, and modern science has only affirmed practices that date back at least to medieval times. But this is fiction, so you can extrapolate what you need for your work.
Good luck and be safe!